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On the Power of the Volunteer

Jul 31, 2015

Slought is pleased to announce a new series of blog posts as part of our commitment to reflecting on the power dynamics that structure cultural production. In this inaugural post, intern Olivia Horn reflects on shifting perspectives on volunteerism in the nonprofit landscape.

Horn studies Art History and Consumer Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she...


In the cultural sector, a variety of concerns have been raised in recent years about the ethics and effectiveness of how volunteer labor is structured. Much of the existing literature on this topic (see, for example, the writing of Rick Cohen for Nonprofit Quarterly) openly questions whether volunteers in fact contribute to the organizations they support, or drain them of their resources. Critics suggest that the hierarchical division of labor between volunteers and paid employees inevitably creates tension that inhibits the productivity of the workplace. Moreover, these critics see volunteers as more of a liability than employees, because they receive no income or other benefits from the organizations for which they work. A vicious cycle thus develops in which, because volunteers are not tethered to the organization in tangible ways, they are given menial and unfulfilling tasks, which further distances them from meaningful participation. Through these mechanisms they are effectively rendered exploited labor, and are without opportunity to contribute in substantive ways to the institution's voice.

We should ask ourselves, however, whether this critical perspective is applicable to all nonprofit organizations. Perhaps it applies more specifically to those that are complicit in the growing trend of professionalization within the nonprofit sector. In their 2008 study The Interchangeability of Paid Staff and Volunteers in Nonprofit Organizations, Femida Handy and her colleagues explore how the coexistence of paid and unpaid staff within a single organization (termed coproduction) has become much more prominent in recent years, due to substantial structural changes in the sector. These changes, which are discussed at length by Michael Rathgeb Smith and Michael Lipsky in their 1993 book, Nonprofits for hire, emerged as neoliberal thought drove government away from the welfare state and other forms of public investment towards an increased dependence on the private voluntary sector. Nonprofit organizations were now being contracted out by the government, and consequently faced a new pressure to deliver far-reaching and quantifiable results that would adequately replace public welfare programs; in many cases, this necessitated hiring trained professionals to manage paperwork, write grants, and generate metrics. Handy's study notes that as part of this growing trend toward professionalization, over half of the organizations surveyed acknowledged that parts of their volunteer network had been replaced by paid staff.

The same study by Handy also explores increased patterns of interchangeability, wherein certain tasks are passed back and forth between paid and unpaid labor; this development further complicates the interaction between volunteers and employees. What happens when coproduction becomes such a dominant force in the nonprofit workplace? Does it have the potential to dilute the organization's mission? The very term "nonprofit" cites the absence of profit, implying a resistance to traditional economies, an investment in something other than material exchange. When nonprofits are cognizant of the trend of professionalization and negotiate it without forsaking their identities as grassroots organizations, they are able support an institutional framework in which volunteers wield tremendous power. It is essential that, even if coproduction is inevitable within an organization, financial concerns are prevented from dominating its internal dialogue, so that its base is of people whose efforts are not motivated by desire for material gain. In this way, the nonprofit can cultivate a sense of community built on shared dedication to a stated mission, while minimizing confounding variables.

Volunteerism is a force driven by something much stronger than money; that is, ethical and intellectual conviction, and an incomparable sense of agency. These act as the foundation of the kind of intimate public about which artist Krzysztof Wodiczko theorizes in his 2011 essay The Inner Public – the group responsible for "everything that is human and social and that contributes to the making of the project before the final moment of its public presentation and reception." Without the charade of rigorous formality and other constraints that often accompany professionalism, the volunteer community is able to work organically and collaboratively, to achieve their goals in a way that is process-oriented and not artificially presentational. Thus, they effect a holistic kind of change that is both inward and outward-facing.

In the right circumstances, volunteerism is a much more potent force than many voices in contemporary discourse seem to recognize. It is the obligation of today's nonprofit organizations to recognize this tremendous power that its volunteers carry, and to develop an organizational and interpersonal structure that respects it. By continuously reflecting on and calibrating the productive potential of its volunteers, organizations can overcome their own complex histories of distrust and ambivalence and embrace alternative approaches to volunteerism.